Is the latest exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, Owen Kydd: Durational Photographs, actually a representation of high-quality art, or is it nothing more than a meaningless gimmick?
Emotionless frivolity does not make good art
When some people see a great work of art, they feel a kind of ‘high.’ The connection can be instantaneous because art is all about aesthetics; its visual appeal is what is meant to draw a person in. This approach can sometimes be tricky in today’s era of contemporary art, where artists are increasingly working with untraditional mediums and therefore emphasizing the concept rather than the aesthetic. The artist statement has become essential in understanding the work. Despite this, the art itself is always more important than gimmicky concepts or authorial intent.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is exhibiting the videos of Los Angeles-based artist Owen Kydd as part of their 14th edition in Montreal’s biennial Mois de la Photo. Kydd is a successful emerging artist in the contemporary photography scene who has exhibited his work in New York, Paris, Amsterdam, and Vancouver, and has recently become a finalist for the Aimia | AGO Photography Prize. Kydd’s work plays with the conventions of photography and film by taking still, immobile shots and prolonging their temporality by shooting four- to six-minute films.
The show is a bit conflicting: Kydd demonstrates strong technical knowledge of photography, but his art doesn’t evoke that jolt of seeing something great. When it comes to art, everyone has their own distinct tastes and definitions of what constitutes quality, but what they all have in common is the same realization and recognition when we finally come across it. That feeling is non-existent when observing Kydd’s exhibit.
Kydd is a strong photographer. His compositions are compelling—they’re unpredictable, eye catching, and incorporate many complex visual forms. This is particularly evident in his more abstracted works such as “Blue Wall Three Parts,” a video of a blue wall with various papers, pieces of tape, and marks on it, flapping occasionally as a gust of wind goes by. In this manner, Kydd films the everyday: Building walls, stationary objects, and even people. What makes his abstract works successful is that he references these familiar things in a subtle way by creating a composition that forces the viewer to focus on other elements such as the texture and colour, as opposed to identifying the subject matter.
While a little less than half the pieces are shot in an abstract manner, the other videos were blatant shots of ordinary objects with little change occurring throughout their four-minute run. While it is evident that Kydd is attempting to show the subtle beauty of the ordinary day, he may have gotten a little carried away with this idea. This is most obvious with his piece, “Knife,” which shows a still shot of a knife on a table as unglamourous as any standard knife in any standard home. A four-minute video of Kydd’s knife felt wholly unnecessary, considering the only real action were subtle changes in reflection every few seconds. There’s nothing interesting or memorable about it, and while Kydd wants to focus on the ordinary, an artwork still needs some sort of aesthetic intrigue in order to resonate with its viewers.
While walking through the show, visitors may find themselves ticking off an imaginary checklist to qualify whether or not the exhibit displays actual art or just a zealous gimmick. Strong composition? Check! Compelling colours? Check! But while Kydd fulfills most of these academic criteria, his work doesn’t have that intrinsic feeling that lends emotion and memorability to classic masterpieces.
If you have to ask whether a piece of art is good, then it probably isn’t.
Pretentiousness aside, understated simplicity shines
To judge the extent to which this can be called art, one has to decide whether or not they find this to be a gimmick. Admittedly, when reading interviews with Kydd and looking at some of his pieces online, it seemed that way; he came off as esoteric and snooty, and his pieces of art looked boring and pedestrian. Also, the term “durational photography” felt like a lame attempt at seeming innovate.
This negative perception quickly changes when actually confronted with the exhibit. Tucked away in the basement of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, one is greeted with two separate walls of text explaining the concept behind the exhibit. The text has a tone that seems to be insisting that it be taken seriously, highlighting specific themes in Kydd’s work and decrying “an era in which the image has become promiscuous and the gaze infinite.”
The first thing that will strike viewers is how small the exhibit is. Consisting of just eight pieces, the exhibit’s smallness is a huge benefit in that it allows every piece to be properly taken in and understood by the viewer. It also limited the choice of instalments that the curator could select, resulting in only the best pieces getting chosen.
The pieces are fascinating both in terms of their movement and their transitions between shots. Even the least interesting photography subject imaginable—a blank wall—is made interesting when the camera focuses on it in extreme close-up. The camera jitters slightly, bringing a sense of vibrancy and movement to a stationary object. Other pieces cycle through a series of shots transitioning with either soft dissolves, in the case of a series of shots looking through a storefront on a lazy day, or with quick, jarring cuts. The latter occur in a piece called “20 Degree Views, August,” which cycles between shots of the open sky. Here, where the only spatial frames of reference in the first place are panels of wood and metal at the bottom of the screen, the viewer becomes increasingly disoriented by the relative quickness of the cuts.
Other pieces are more notable for their lack of change. “Marina and Yucca,” for instance, juxtaposes a black-and-white shot of a Yucca plant with a colour shot of a person. The more one looks at this lengthy static shot, the more the difference between the two states of living became apparent. While the Yucca doesn’t move at all during the minutes-long shot, Marina, the human subject, tries desperately to maintain the illusion of still photography. She squeezes her closed eyes and furrows her brow, seeming paradoxically more alive than the still life formula seems to allow. Contrasted with the completely still Yucca, what results is a unique commentary on the differences of being alive in plants and animals. While a plant’s natural state is stillness, humans can’t help but move around, even when trying to be still for a few minutes. This is something that cannot be captured by traditional photography.
The through-line across the pieces is their impeccable composition. Kydd has an exceptional grasp of framing, using the colours in his subjects to create artificial borders, evoking a tacit realization of how his work is divided. He also seems to be interested in windows and reflections, with pieces like “Studies in Blue” looking at reflections of cars passing by, or a shot of a gently swaying palm tree made slightly abstract by a window in between the subject and the camera.
Ultimately, it seems like the problem with the exhibit isn’t one of art, but of poor marketing. While “Durational Photography” might be a pretentious name, the actual art of it is simple and understated, quietly breathing new life and meaning into a familiar medium.